We met healthy, swimming in adjacent lanes at the “Y”.
With no pen and paper and wet hands besides, I told him he could get my phone number from my professional photographer website.
I thought I wouldn’t hear from him once he Googled me because my name would invariably pull up, as if from a swamp, the saga of my ex-husband's domestic violence arrest and conviction.
Instead, he told me, “You need some tender loving care, and I’m going to give it to you.”
In Seal Cove, he held onto my kayak from his kayak and with mating seals baying all around us, recited, by memory, Keats' entire "Ode to a Nightingale".
When he invited me to his house for dinner, candles lit the pathway. When he came to my house for dinner, he carried in a tub of lilacs from his yard.
His emails were formatted into stationery with birds and butterflies and sea dollars, and the message was sometimes just a Shakespeare sonnet to fit the occasion, written in a calligraphy computer font. After an exhilarating day together I came home to a good night song in an email link to Tim Buckley's haunting "Lilac Wine".
He pursued with passion all the sports I loved, was boyishly fun, off the charts-romantic, and handsome as a prince. He gave his full, charming attention to random people we encountered in our adventures and I was in awe of the kindness that showed.
Three good friends reported unpleasant experiences with him. But I was having the time of my life, and paid no attention.
Then, on a sailing trip for my birthday one year ago today, two months after we met, he suddenly turned cold and critical.
He denied anything was wrong. Cited the “do not take anything personally” directive of the self-help book "Four Agreements".
Maybe I was ultra-sensitive because of my past relationship.
I carried on, and back on land he was — almost — his romantic self again. Then a couple of weeks later, again on a multi-day sailing trip with just the two of us, the storm cloud returned, but 10 times darker. There was not one element in him of the man who had swept me off my feet.
The charm was turned on at a birthday dinner in Buck's Landing with two of my closest friends, but off again the second we were in the rowboat just me and him. He was ice cold in the narrow bunk; when he poked his head up from the galley at dawn while I was having coffee on the deck; and all the while he steered us home. I prayed for land, and separation. When my feet touched the dock, I told him we were done and could not get to my car fast enough.
Emails (no calligraphy font this time) and a letter followed, wanting to see me and professing no clue about what had gone wrong on my birthday sail.
I was relieved to have gotten out, and proud that I had acted so quickly, and I held firm against communicating with him. But then the exciting and fun times we shared took over my mind and with them, doubts.
I missed him. Maybe I should have been more understanding. The shift happened both times on his boat - maybe there was a dynamic specific to sailing we could have worked out.
I called a domestic abuse hotline, and gave the patient woman on the other line a detailed run-down of the high romance and scary freeze. I asked her if it was "domestic or intimate-partner abuse". She said she did not think it rose to that level, but that in breaking up with him I was right to follow my instincts.
Wanting to make sense of it, and him, I reached out to a number of his ex-girlfriends. Each told me about fireworks sex and Cary Grant romance, then his abrupt disinterest and ungallant behavior and breakup.
In my Finding Our Voices: Breaking the Silence of Domestic Abuse exhibit, I have a vase of red roses intermingled with red flags on which are printed warning signs in intimate partner relationships. One of the red flags reads “Sweeps you off your feet.” This vase with flags was in the most visible part of my living room all the while I was being swept off my feet.
A friend of mine found her Prince Charming this year: After a series of abusive relationships she finally connected with a man who talked to her, and listened to her. He moved in to her house quickly.
Six months in, she was paying all the bills and all he was giving was excuses. I told her to get in touch with an ex-girlfriend of his whom we both know. She did, and discovered this woman left him because she was paying all the bills and he was giving only excuses.
- - - - - - / - - - - - -
A Sunday summer lunch in the garden of dear friends. Bees in the wooly thyme on the stone patio, butterflies dancing in the Joe Pye Weed. We were joined by their friend Richard, visiting from Connecticut, who for decades has counseled abusive men, often sent to him by judges in domestic violence cases.
“Fiendish empathy,” he said after I told him my story.
This is when a man puts on a veneer of being empathetic. He has no true and real feelings for her. It is all about manipulation. And this makes him dangerous.
I learned at that lunch that a man does not need to be labeled "a domestic abuser" for you to know that you need to stay away from him.
Follow your instincts.
And when in doubt, call the ex-wife or ex-girlfriends. They know.
After our lunch, my friend wrote that the group hiked Caterpillar Hill and she attached this photo (left). I looked up the quote on the girl’s T-shirt. It is by Audre Lourde, essayist, feminist, activist.
“My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.”
I checked out the photo essay on domestic violence by Sara Lewkowicz that people were buzzing about. The images are impressive, a few masterful. But the main feeling I had was: “Oh no, not again.” And not for the violence, but for the physical appearance of the victim and the perpetrator.
A rage-filled boyfriend just out of jail and covered in tattoos. And a young woman with bruises on her neck and “victim" written as clearly all over her as her name “Maggie Mae” was dripped in thick black ink across his neck.
In 1991, Donna Ferrato published “Living with the Enemy”, a chronicle of men beating up girlfriends and wives, in gritty black and white, with a cover photo that three decades later is still the iconic image of domestic abuse: The face of a haggard woman with two black eyes.
The problem is that it is not only men who are covered in jailhouse tattoos who brutalize women, and the women who are brutalized are not all poor.
Smart, accomplished and dynamic women are terrorized by men who purport to love them, and successful and admired men do the terrorizing. But this demographic does not open their doors to photojournalists looking to expose social ills, and so we are stuck with the stereotype of a domestic abuser as a societal loser, and a domestic abuse victim as weak.
And that is a big part of why, as I have taken Finding Our Voices: Breaking the Silence of Domestic Abuse around this year to Rotary clubs and public libraries and gallery spaces, women whisper to me afterward about the abusive relationship-- past or present-- and say, “I am so ashamed.”
Mary Lou, a 79-year old retired teacher from Scarborough, is one of the 20 women in my Finding Our Voices project, and last week the extraordinary Bill Nemitz devoted his Portland Press Herald column to this wonderful woman.
“The cover story appeared in Church World,” his article starts, "… it showed Dr. Charles Smith - college professor, transoceanic sailor; Navy captain - surrounded by his beaming wife Mary Lou and their four children… What the article didn’t say, what no one outside the picture-perfect family knew, was that Charles Smith also beat his wife."
When enough women across all socioeconomic levels step up, like in Finding Our Voices, to say "Me Too" about their domestic abuse experiences, it will become clear that even women in picture perfect families are terrorized by their boyfriends and husbands, and even picture perfect men do the terrorizing.
Rats are my big phobia, but right behind them for as long as I remember has been public speaking.
So taking around Finding Our Voices, with a talk by me always part of the exhibit or slideshow presentation, is a literal finding of my voice.
I have lived in Camden for more than 30 years and have deep connections to the community, and friends and family were coming from near and far for the launch of Finding Our Voices at the Camden Public Library on Valentine’s Day of this year. So I knew it would be a friendly and supportive audience.
I was writing drafts on my computer and scribbling notes on any paper within hand’s reach for months leading up to the day.
When the chairs at the Camden Library were all filled, and the clock told me it was time to start the program, I came to the microphone, and read straight from the script. I remember looking up two times. Went through the slideshow, fielded some questions from the audience, then dashed to the bathroom and threw up.
At a Pecha Kucha in Belfast, where presenters file by the stage for six minutes each, my heart was pounding so hard in the half hour leading to my turn to present that I thought it would jump out of my chest. I avoided passing out by clutching the hand of Maegan, a Finding Our Voices Survivor/Participant who was sitting next to me.
At the Camden Rotary Club, the casual conversation of the woman sitting next to me was like a train roaring in my ear. Afterward, one of the mostly male members of the audience came up to me and said, “I could tell you were talking from the heart, and it was much more powerful than the people who come up with slick presentations.” That was a mixed compliment, but it made me feel good.
The other night on Islesboro marked about half a dozen times that I have stood in front of an audience with Finding Our Voices.
The two pieces of paper with my speech were on the podium but I just followed the general outline as I remembered it, referring to it only once or twice. The rest of the time I was looking in the eyes of, and happy to connect with, audience members.
For three decades, at home, I staunched my opinions. I didn’t voice my hopes or fears, my dreams or nightmares. There were landmines everywhere of names and topics.
A dear friend, three years after my divorce, heard how afraid I used to be of public speaking. She wrote this to me.
"I remember at **’s wedding, you gave a short welcome speech. I remember seeing you anxiously rehearsing outside the tent before you spoke. You did a wonderful job, but I was surprised that a person like you, who is clearly completely competent, was so nervous about a short speech. Now I understand."
Now I understand as well.
* Photos by Rebekah Paredes, executive director of the New Hope domestic abuse agency
cars, on finding out why we were going to the island, told me about his granddaughter who just got a protection from abuse order against her boyfriend— they are both students from the Massachusetts Marine Academy and he tried to strangle her many times.
Then on the taxi ride from the VH boat crossover from NH, the driver told us about her abusive first husband.
A woman who lives on North Haven as we were hanging the show came up to me and whispered "Me too."
The lady who gave us and our bikes and heavy bags a lift from the thoroughfare-landing on Vinalhaven into town spent the 15 minute car ride telling us about her struggles with her abusive first husband.
At breakfast, a dear woman who I know from previous visits to the island revealed that the man her mother married after their father died (the mother said "who else would want a woman with so many kids") for more than a decade, regularly beat the mother up and sexually molested the daughters.
Every time I take this project around, and am privy to these heartbreaking confessions, I know that we 21 survivor/participants in Finding Our Voices, as hard as it is to stand up and speak out because of conditioning by the abusers and society to feel embarrassment and shame, are giving out the crucial message to other women that they are not alone.